Kunisada I Utagawa was a prolific woodblock print artist mostly known for his pictures of beautiful women (bijinga) and kabuki actors prints (yakusha-e). Born in Edo (today’s Tokyo), he became a pupil of Toyokuni I Utagawa (1769-1825) at the age of 15 and would later adopt his name in the traditional Japanese manner, becoming Toyokuni III and continuing the development of the Utagawa art school.
Kunisada’s pictures reflect the culture of Japan in the years leading up to the country’s opening to the West. His first book illustrations were published in 1807 and his first actor portrait the following year. Alongside theatrical scenes and courtesans, yakusha-e was his preferred genre amidst all his popular and extensive output. As he painted a large number of these, continuing the stout realism of his teacher, he acquired the nickname ‘Yakusha-e no Kunisada’ – Kunisada, the actor painter. In his numerous bijinga he clung to the ideal of beauty prevalent at the time. Most of the women portrayed were courtesans from Yoshiwara, the regulated red-light district of the city.
In 1820s Kunisada joined author Ryutei Tanehiko (1783-1842) to work on illustrating a series of books based on the classical novel ‘The Tale of Genji’, the reinterpreted story having been relocated from the old capital of Kyoto to the new audience in Edo. The work started a new ukiyo-e genre, genji-e, and proved an overnight success, becoming the first Japanese publication to sell over 10,000 copies, a record which stood for many years.
Kunisada gave his audience an escape from the restrictions of their ordinary lives and his designs, with their optimism and energy, still have the capacity today to attract and entertain. Notable students of Kunisada included Kunichika Toyohara, Sadahide Utagawa and Kunisada II Utagawa.